By day, the western India town of Akole is a bustling farming community, surrounded by millet and sugar cane fields. By night, however, leopards stroll down the main street and quietly lick their paws on porches.
It’s no secret that there are leopards in town, but now, the big cats’ nightlife has been caught on camera, and wildlife experts are marveling at how well leopards and humans are adapting to each other.
Over the course of just one month, 37 hidden cameras around Akole, set up by Vidya Athreya, a researcher with Wildlife Conservation Society-India, snapped 87 pictures of leopards as they went about their after-hours routine.
These leopards weren’t just rebellious teens who had run away from sheltering parents in the national parks, either. The cameras caught mothers with cubs and other evidence of a whole well-established leopard community living alongside humans.
Only five percent of land in India is set aside in protected areas, so this proof that even big carnivores can live in human-dominated landscapes is encouraging to conservationists who often feel helpless as they watch natural habitat being destroyed.
“I think the important message of this study is to not just discard those areas that have not traditionally been regarded as important for conservation,” says Dr. Luke Hunter, President of Panthera, the world’s leading wild cat conservation organization. “A sugar cane field is not natural leopard habitat, but they can make it work.”
Leopards can make it work, but only if people can tolerate leopards the way that leopards are tolerating people. No one can recall an instance where a human was attacked by a leopard in this area, but there is hardly any natural prey left for the big cats, besides some hares and big rodents. Leopards appear to be surviving on ferel dogs and sometimes taking goats and other small livestock.
“It’s not like in other places, where if people hear that there’s a big cat in the area they automatically go out and exterminate it without a second thought,” says Dr. Hunter. “It’s partly thanks to strict laws in India protecting wildlife, but also thanks to the religious and cultural beliefs of this community, which fosters respect and tolerance for leopards, even when they’re not great neighbors.”
Protected areas will always play a vital role in big cat conservation. The larger species like tigers and lions, for example, just can’t survive on the smaller prey that leopards can get by on. They need the wildlife that humans like to replace with livestock, and they potentially pose a serious danger to humans if forced to get too close.
Hopefully though, people can learn to develop land in a way that isn’t completely inhospitable to big carnivores. Leaving some natural cover like trees or bushes and letting antelope and the rest of the foundation of the food chain persist, might be the difference between dwindling populations of big cats behind fences in wildlife refuges and leopards throughout India where they belong.